By Marcia Zellers
If you’re middle-aged and on the job market like me, no doubt this cartoon just gave you a good chuckle. Followed directly by a good cry, or maybe fear and loathing gripping your arteries. I’m amazed at how boldly employers and recruiters are telling me these days, “We really want a woman” or “We’re looking for diversity.” Aside from a queasiness at the likely illegality of those statements, I’m not complaining — it’s long overdue.
But you know what else is overdue? An acknowledgement that “diversity” in the workplace means gender, race, sexual orientation, AND AGE. That the wisdom and experience of older workers has value. That we are the third leg of the stool in an intergenerational formula for success. That most of us are sufficiently tech savvy after living with the internet for 25 years, thank you! (Heck, I’ve been on social media since today’s college grads were learning subtraction.) And perhaps most importantly, that, in an era of disappeared employer retirement contributions, rising costs, and wage stagnation, there is no such thing as retirement for all but the very wealthy. We want to work, and we need to work.
The last few bumpy years revealed a shocking depth of false progress on civil rights. So I’m glad we’re finally calling out racism, sexism, and a rainbow of persecutions. But there’s another ism we need to add to the list and start railing against, too: ageism. Our absurdly youth-obsessed culture is discriminatory, self-defeating, and a giant destabilizing economic disaster in waiting.
As a workplace contributor, I feel like I’m just getting revved up. I’m faster, smarter, wiser, more experienced, a better leader, just plain better in almost every way than I’ve ever been. Most other people I know in mid-life feel the same.
But no doubt the resume bots are screening us out based on years of experience. And when we do get in the pipeline, it takes a supremely evolved hiring manager to even consider bringing on anyone over 40.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been that manager, and I’ve felt the unease of staring across my desk at an aging job seeker who dares to suggest they are as compelling as the lovely young thangs they compete with. How undignified, this groveling for employment! Our biases run so deep we don’t even know we have them.
True, along with having greater superpowers, I’m also more expensive than I’ve ever been. Wouldn’t you pay more for kryptonite? I’m not even sure I buy the argument that salary is a factor, anyway. Here on the West coast, Silicon Valley mints baby millionaires, and in LA I’ve heard of tech-forward companies paying more than $200K to rosy-cheeked assistants and managers.
So don’t tell me I’m too expensive. These companies are willing to pay these salaries because they ascribe value to the youth and potential of their hires. (Admittedly, they also know that salary means they bought an indentured servant willing to make their bed in the space under their desk, and most of us in the been there, done that crowd are not so compliant.)
Along with being unfair, this discrimination is also bad for the economy. People over 50 account for over half of all consumer spending. And women 50+ make 90% of the household buying decisions. Over 50s buy 57% of all new cars, 55% of all consumer packaged goods, and hold 70% of total U.S. wealth.
Here in California we like to boast that we’re the 5th largest economy in the world, and that’s an impressive figure. According to author and famed ad man Bob Hoffman, “If they were their own country, Americans over 50 would be the 3rd largest economy in the world.” As a society, we should really, really want to keep this demographic working so they can continue to spend like their best earning years are still ahead.
If we don’t change our ways, the real sucker punch will come around 2030. From now until that date, over-50s are expected to continue growing at 3x the rate of under-50s. That’s also about the time social security is projected to go insolvent (2034, if we don’t fix it). Just thinking about how a shrinking young workforce might support the growing older population is enough to put gray hair on a grad student. But add to that the swelling number of people in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s who are too young to collect social security, but have been ousted from what should be their highest wage earning years by the prejudices of a workforce obsessed with the allure of youth. It’s not sustainable.
MeToo has Harvey Weinstein. OccupyWallStreet had the financial meltdown. BlackLivesMatter has, well… layers of injustice. The ageism drum is trilling, but the protest is still far from the workplace. #OlderWorkersWork
What has been your experience with ageism in the workplace? How have you challenged it? Comment below.